Following the conclusion of its drills and weapons testing in the South China Sea, China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, transited through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, apparently en route back to its home port of Qingdao in northeast China. In response, Taiwan announced that it sent fighter jets and warships to monitor and surveil Liaoning and its escorting warships as they sailed north. China conducted air force patrols with bombers and fighters around Taiwan in November and December of last year, moves easily described as intentional signals to Taiwan. The Liaoning’s strait transit, however, is less obviously a provocation, but is being widely treated as a warning or signal of assertive Chinese intentions.
The New York Times called the transit “a defiant move” that “may foreshadow an early foreign policy challenge” for the incoming Trump administration, without elaborating what explicit prohibition or implicit understanding the voyage was supposed to be defying, or how warships peacefully transiting an international strait were a challenge that the United States could somehow prevent. The Atlantic similarly described the transit as China “defiantly” steering its carrier through the strait. Reuters called the transit a sign of “heightened tensions” between China and Taiwan.
Whereas China’s bombers’ and fighters’ flightpaths near Taiwan earlier this winter were not incidental to reaching some other destination, the Liaoning’s track through the Taiwan Strait is a logical route to return home from its exercises in the South China Sea. It is also a route Liaoning has taken before, during its first trip to the South China Sea in 2013, not long after its commissioning.
The Taiwan Strait route is about a day shorter than the one Liaoning took southward at the beginning of its exercises in December. But that track probably had a specific training purpose. The route through the Miyako Strait in Japan’s Ryukyu island chain took the carrier into the deeper, more open, and less crowded waters to the east of Taiwan where it could conduct complex training exercises and combat simulations. With its training complete, that longer eastern passage would only have added time to its return voyage.
That longer passage would also have avoided the present commentary about China’s “defiance” vis-à-vis the Taiwan Strait, but China can also credibly call those objections artificial, and potentially even hypocritical. China’s vice minister of foreign affairs emphasized in a news conference that the Taiwan Strait is “an international watercourse,” that it was normal for the Liaoning to transit the strait, and that it “will not have any impact on cross-strait relations.” This is similar to the justifications invoked by the United States when its warships have transited the Taiwan Strait.
In addition to individual ship transits, the United States sent full carrier strike groups through the strait in 2002, and in 2007. USS Kitty Hawk’s 2007 strait passage followed China’s cancellation of a scheduled port visit in Hong Kong by the U.S. strike group and an earlier denial of entry by U.S. minesweepers seeking shelter from a severe storm. But at the time U.S. officials said that it was “not unusual” for U.S. naval vessels to transit the strait, and that the decision had been made primarily for weather considerations. Even if the United States intended the transit in part to signal its displeasure at the treatment of its warships, there was obviously no concern that it was unduly provocative.
Even during the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 and 1996, when China threatened Taiwan against making moves toward independence with shows of force, military exercises, and missile tests, the U.S. Navy wanted to use the strait for navigational reasons, not for signaling China.
The common understanding of the crisis is that the United States sent two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait in a show of force to deter China against further action. In reality, Robert Ross, a professor at Boston College, discovered from later interviews with senior U.S. officials that only one aircraft carrier went through the strait, and that this was incidental to the U.S. Navy’s deterrence mission. Far from a provocation or threat, the USS Nimitz’s December 1995 strait transit occurred prior to the main U.S. deterrence effort; was requested by the U.S. Navy as a time-saving route to make up for weather delays; and occurred in secret, as officials believe China was unaware of the transit until it was revealed by Taiwan weeks later.
Euan Graham of Australia’s Lowy Institute pointed out to the New York Times that Chinese ships transiting between the South China Sea and the Liaoning’s North Sea Fleet base have a “binary choice” – they must either transit the sensitive Taiwan Strait, or the sensitive Miyako Strait in Japan’s Ryukyu islands. In choosing the Taiwan Strait to return home, the Liaoning also made choices to minimize provocative interpretations by sailing up the west side of the strait, which is closer to China, as opposed to a route closer to Taiwan, which would have added some distance to its transit and strongly implied a deliberate signal to Taiwan.
When the Liaoning transited south to begin its exercises, concerns were similarly raised about its proximity to Taiwanese and Japanese waters to the east of Taiwan. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded that “training by the Chinese side complies with international law and practices, and the Liaoning aircraft carrier is entitled to the freedom of navigation and overflight under international law.” These freedom of navigation rights are the same basis the United States claims for its operations in the South China Sea and its previous transits through the Taiwan Strait. If the U.S. Navy transiting the Taiwan Strait isn’t unduly provocative or “unusual” it doesn’t make sense to interpret Liaoning’s transit that way. It would be productive if transits by both navies in the strait could be normalized, without being labeled as provocative to either side.
In the end, the Taiwan Strait is both a useful maritime route through which all ships are entitled to free and unrestricted passage under the UN Law of the Sea, and a place imbued with great political sensitivity. Chang Hsiao-Yueh, Taiwan’s minister for mainland affairs, told reporters that Taiwan could defend itself and that “it is not necessary to overly panic,” while still denouncing cross-strait threats as unproductive. Because the threat of cross-strait violence is real, and one of the principal scenarios that could bring the United States and China into direct armed conflict, what is necessary is not to overly panic and exaggerate provocations.